Traditional objectives, contemporary methods

[This article, published on 5 May 2003, originally appeared here.]

Traditional objectives, contemporary methods: why it’s all right for Tories to feast on the fruits of modernism

Is there such a thing as Tory art? In a word, no – and yet if there were, it is not hard to imagine what it would look like.
Tory art, if it existed, probably could not be stretched to include Sir Anthony Van Dyck, shrinking as much from his flexibility as from his exoticism, and it would no more stomach the egalitarian bluffness of William Dobson than Sir Peter Lely’s slight oiliness. It would find something to admire in Sir Godfrey Kneller’s incisiveness and sobriety while lamenting much of his subject-matter. With the eighteenth century, it would come into its own, drawing to its bosom the portraits (but not the history paintings) of Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and George Romney, while maintaining its distance from Allan Ramsay, William Hogarth and Richard Wilson. It would show fondness and sympathy for every indifferently executed, obsessively detailed portrait of an estate produced in Restoration or Georgian England. It would admit nothing by Joseph Wright of Derby. It would execrate William Blake as the republican madman he was. It would maintain a distrustful attitude towards George Stubbs because of his empiricism even as it longed for his world of handsome bloodstock and deferential yet individuated servants. It would distrust J. M. W. Turner for couching his truths about English weather in an increasing radical idiom. It would find, perhaps, its apotheosis in John Constable and the dogmatic nostalgia which excised from his landscapes any sign of the urban, industrial or proto-modern.

And there, really Tory art would end, because even art that has been made and appreciated after this point would, in essence, in order to be Tory art of this sort, need consciously to turn from the world around it and look instead to the past not only for inspiration but for approbation, from whence it could never come – hence John Singer Sargent, grappling with the eighteenth century conversation pieces his subjects had either inherited or wished to have inherited; hence Sir Alfred Munnings, tilting in his cups at ‘this so-called modern art’; hence all those nice people who produce daubey little landscapes a century after Impressionist has become the visual language of chocolate boxes; hence the painters of military scenes still dogged by Lady Butler’s robust shade; hence a sort of pervasive confused regretfulness, only sometimes masked with indignation, articulated by so many Tories when it comes to the subject of art in our own time. This is what Tory art might be like it if existed – if the notion of such a thing was any more than an intuitive flight of fancy, pleasant enough to contemplate but impossible to justify.

The Meaninglessness of Objects
For as I wrote at the beginning of this piece, there is no such thing as ‘Tory art’. How could there be? The material things created by artists are, ultimately, ideologically neutral. They have no intrinsic meaning. They are, in a way, like those lumpy, obviously hand-made, inscrutable artefacts which archaeologists unearth from time to time and which, when consigned to public view, are lamely explained away as ‘ritual objects’. Their makers thought one sort of thing about them; we think another; our grandchildren will surely think something else altogether, projecting upon them a lexicon of interpretations and resonances and priorities of which we could hardly dream.

Nor can style carry with it any sort of stable ideological or moral baggage, however strong and insistent may be its immediate associations. We read into it what we have learned, in whatever complicated and unrecoverable way, to read into it. Revolutionary movements have employed classicism as much to imply continuity and tradition as to evoke the purity of timelessness – and reactionary regimes have done the same. Is ‘totalitarian art’ supposed to mean an austere black square painted by Kasimir Malevich (and which went on to be hung above his dead body, for all the world like a modernist funeral hatchment) or some ghastly Soviet Social Realist portrait of a combine harvester? And, more to the point, would someone happening upon these two works a thousand years from now possibly bracket the two together, or apprehend ‘totalitarianism’ from their intrinsic qualities? And if so, what would that same viewer make of a colour-field abstract painting emanating from the abjectly capitalist California of the mid-1960s? What would he make of an advertisement from London in 2002 that appropriated, with self-consciousness and irony, the style of that combine harvester portrait, but which turned that style to the service of selling, say, expensive leisure clothing to the urban haute bourgeoisie?

On a day-to-day basis, of course, we are spared the necessity of looking down into this chasm – a chasm of instability, arbitrariness and contingency – by all the ways in which art is ordered. The ‘art world’ provides the illusion of stability through the medium of art history, through the notion of styles and schools and art-historical ‘progress’, through the way in which art is displayed in galleries or evaluated in sale catalogues – even through the insistence on a category of art per se, as distinct from decoration or functional object or what have you. But we also order art ourselves, both through having internalised these conventions, and through our own eccentric visual histories. A friend of mine, a great fan of Frieda Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe, once asked me, anxiously, whether it was ‘bad’ that she liked the work of a particularly banal [male] French Impressionist – liked it, because a grainy and discoloured reproduction of one of his works had been the sole decoration available in the otherwise art-free house in which she’d grown up – to which I could only reply that not only was it not ‘bad’, but it really exemplified in miniature, as it were, all the reasons why any of us ever like any art at all.

Familiarity breeds comfort – one of the reasons, I suppose, why the bold colours and swirly forms of 1970s modernist graphic design look so good, so old-fashioned and reassuring, to 30-something consumers now. My friend hid her guilty love of Renoir because she had also internalised the notion that it was ‘better’ to like unhappy women artists, that doing so said a better thing about her than liking the sort of art her parents had been willing to tolerate. Another friend’s surprising sympathy for the primitivist impulses of early modernism turns out to reflect the experience of having grown up in houses packed with the dusty relics of his family’s adventures in colonial West Africa. And since we’re disgressing into biography here, I might as well add that I myself grew up in a house containing a well-thumbed first edition of Alfred J. Barr’s book about Picasso; my mother had shared a tiny East Coast American college with Helen Frankenthaler and may even have overlapped slightly with Clement Greenberg; my own visual education placed early Joan Miro on equal terms with the Flemish Primitives and Eduard Manet, while I remember quite a lot of quiet excoriation directed at Andy Warhol. And oddly enough, I still have far more time for the gestural excesses of the New York School than I do for Pop Art or conceptual art or photography or film. Nor has awareness of the sorce of these ancestral biases allowed me entirely to overcome them.

So who am I to condemn those people whose visual canon takes in Turner but rejects Rothko, embraces Gainsborough but shrinks from Lucian Freud, loves Constable but can’t quite see the point of Mark Wallinger? All I ask is that such people should realise and accept the arbitrary nature of their prejudices, should accept the role of history and tradition (even if it’s the recent history of modernism) in forming their visual taste, should realise that there is no simple moral or spiritual connection between art and the ‘society that produces it’, and should stop trying to systematise these prejudices and to impose them as matters of fact on everybody else. For although there is no such thing as Tory art, there certainly should be a Tory way of thinking about art, and this ought to stand amongst its central governing premises.

Not all aesthetic blind spots, admittedly, are our parents’ fault. For most people, subject-matter is an important aspect of visual art, and it is perhaps here that the ‘baggage’ that we carry with us as we look at art – the meanings that we project upon it, and then come to feel we have read out from it – is most undeniably apparent. As someone with an conventionally Tory take on the French Revolution (a very bad thing, indeed almost the worst thing ever) my admiration on a technical level for the work of Jacques-Louis David – not least, in his ability to create an arresting and memorable image – coexists with the fact that I cannot, in all honesty, claim to ‘like’ his paintings. To me, The Oath of the Horatii might as well have been painted in the blood of my ancestors; because I know something about its context, its austere classicism and simple lines are smeared in my eyes with the rancid stuff that flows from Marat and Robbespierre to Lenin and Hitler and Stalin, that has clung to plenty of other less spectacularly wicked regimes, and which contaminates, however much I wish it did not, my experience of looking at what is, at some level, a supremely effective and handsome painting. The same goes, in various different ways, for the sickly sentimentality of German Romantic art, Paul Delaroche’s faux veracity, Balthus’ creepy obsession with schoolgirls, R. B. Kitaj’s cult of victimhood, and Jeff Koons’ commercialism. Anyone could produce such a list. The trick is to resist the need to make inflated claims for its objectivity. I once knew someone who liked Tudor portraits because Tudor society was apparently ‘meritocratic and fluid’ but disliked Van Dyck’s elegant depictions of the court of Charles I because ‘everyone looks arrogant and haughty there’ and she felt certain she would not have fit in. All of which is bad history and awkward criticism, but at least has the benefit of honesty.

Naming prejudices
This, indeed, is why one can imagine the sort of gallery of Tory art which began this essay, even if one can’t possibly justify it intellectually. Tory art, I suppose, would be very self-consciously English, and would have an instinctive dislike of modernity, industrialisation, mercantilism, science, progress, bright colour, strong line, and ostentatious artistic skill. Due to an unconscious disapproval of ‘art’ as a category (born part out of its undemonstrative yet iconoclastic protestantism, and part from its realisation that both the French Revolution and the intellectual currents of nineteenth century Germany played central roles in transforming ‘art’ from ‘skill or artifice’ into its own weird ghetto of aestheticisation, fetishisation and scholarly co-option) this Tory vision of art would prefer pictures of horses, grand houses, great ships and indifferent ancestors to art which set out to make a point about art. It would distrust innovation and internationalism, but would all unknowingly assimilate Holbein, Ruysdael, Rubens, Jordaens, Velasquez, even Manet and Degas. It would secretly love pictures as decoration, as conduits of memory, as heritable objects, while vaguely feeling that such things should never be said. Its rejection of modernism would be a considered and polemical stance, rather than something natural or inevitable.

These things seem intuitively correct, if only because, at present, they reflect the prejudices and habits of mind most broadly shared out amongst those who imagine themselves Tories. Importantly, though, while at one level this picture depends on clear-eyed honesty about the radically subjective nature of the individual experience of art, it can happily co-exist with complete ignorance on the part of those experiencing art as to how subjective their experience must indeed be.

Such a gallery of ‘art Tories tend to like’ has only a limited predictive value, though, and provides only veiled unhelpful hints about a Tory approach to art more broadly. The important part is, I suppose, the realisation that respect for the past will eventually get around to ratifying the material remains of modernism, once time has purged them of their less congenial resonances, while the circularity and self-referential qualities of post-modern art could potentially make their appeal to future Tories all the stronger. To go further, to discover what might be uniquely or at least distinctively Tory approaches of visual culture, it might be more useful to forget Tories for a moment, and to have a look instead at what our enemies have been doing.

We’re [mostly] all liberals now

Various alternative ways of looking at art are important at the moment, either because people take them for granted or because the things people take for granted were developed as a reaction to them. And as with the notion of a Tory way of looking at art, these approaches have strong bonds to other habits of thought, conferring on them kinship, fictive or otherwise, with particular ideological orientations. Possibly the most important of these is the one that might, if one were in the mood for wild generalisation, be labelled the liberal way of looking at art. This is the staple stuff of the broadsheet papers, of popular critics from Brian Sewell Robert Hughes to Matthew Collings, of most of the great and the good who populate committees and quangos, the boards of museums and galleries, and certainly the one for whose truths – however much, intuitively, they may find them unappealing – even Tories have a sort of unhappy reverence.

Liberal art believes in ‘art’ as a category, a sort of corral for objects whose intrinsic uselessness secures for them a special set of rules, a special rhetoric of regard, a sacred space outside the boundaries of everyday life. Plenty of nineteenth century legends still have currency here. It is likely, the liberal view of art suggests, that since art reflects the age and spirit in which it was made, and since it is one of the ways in which the vigour of a civilisation might be measured, that art can not only civilise, but can be a force for moral improvement. Art may even be able to deliver a series of near-spiritual truths, or at any rate, sustaining alternatives to spiritual truths which are no longer possible or desirable. And it is chiefly for this reason that it is important to cordon art off from other things, to build temples in its honour, to make cash oblations to it, to defer to its priesthood of critics and curators and experts, to impute to it – because remember, it is an indicator of how civilised we are, and how far we have progressed – the ability to heal, to redeem, to transform and elevate. Of course making ‘art’ an end in itself strips from the mute unprotesting objects – the high Baroque Entombment, the royal portrait, the pretty essay in Rococo soft-core porn – every modicum of functionality their makers, purchasers and owners may have found in them, but in doing so it surely civilises them, substituting for ‘superstition’ and ‘propaganda’ and ‘pornography’ the soothing language of styles, schools, history (of a sort), connoisseurship, ‘progress’.

And because this quasi-religion is based all too squarely in this world, both its inner tokens and external rewards are very much apparent. In this world of liberal art, the ability to understand and appreciate visual culture – as long as it’s done in the approved language, with the approved responses delivered in the right order – becomes a mark of esteem, although at the same time it would be unacceptable to admit that social-climbing or showing off had any part in what one would be glad to be seen doing, in a fine art gallery on a Sunday afternoon, by all one’s friends and neighbours, or in the devotional texts that might remain unread forever on one’s coffee table, or in one’s pious attempts to express something halfway between tolerance and delight at every new relic which is welcomed, by someone properly accredited, into the sacred precincts of the gallery. Art, too, will civilise the masses by instructing them in decorum and gentility – although this project is perhaps taking longer than some of its proponents might have hoped.

Of late, liberal art has received a fillip from the sort of definitional issues which modernism regularly lays by way of tribute at its threshold. Can a pile of telephone directories be ‘art’? Can a man mutilating himself be ‘art’? Can a copy of someone else’s painting be ‘art’? Liberal art thrives on this whole exercise of naming names, of handing out delegates’ badges, because – having created so many of the institutions, reference books and ‘experts’ on art – these dilemmas give it scope in which to flex its muscles, to confer or withhold approval, to proclaim its own catholic tolerance while at the same time insisting on its ability to pronounce anathema whenever it feels the need. Thus, pornography is bad, while social protest is good. Violence is fine, as long as a liberal rubric of some sort can be placed on it which keeps it confined within the correct channels and hence avoids the danger of complete conceptual breakdown. Tolerance, here, means not simply putting up with what you don’t like, but embracing it and spending money on it and taking it home to live with you forever – in short, liking it, too. That which does not shock us, makes us stronger! Yet obviously, because we live in the liberal and progressive West, art is in no sense a fetish, a positional good, a creepily quasi-sacred category being manipulated by an elite. And if you think it is, it’s because you are not one of the elite, and don’t know any better, and probably never will.

But enough of the heavy irony. The most bracing attack on this orthodoxy has come not from Tories, who grasp in some confused way the ultimate unimportance of ‘art’ and hence realise the territory is simply not worth contesting, but from Marxism, which has provided assaults on a variety of flanks.

Marxist alternatives

Of these, the first and the greatest was formalism. Its connection with Marxism has varied over time from intimate to vastly distant, but at its heart was a teleological velocity, a skill at systematising, an insistence on reductiveness which at every turn insist on its origins in and congruence with Marxist thought. It came to us by way of the more or less subtle writings of Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg, from The Nation and ArtForum. Indeed, from time to time, one occasionally overhears fragments of its orthodoxies being murmured in the most surprising places, not least, albeit in a strangely syncretic form, inThe New Criterion.

To generalise crudely (and this really is crude – the arguments here need to to be heard in the words of the men who developed them, as much to feel invigorated by the polemical energy as to be persuaded by the arguments themselves), formalism holds that the important thing about a work of art is not the circumstances in which it was created, or its subject-matter, or the random reasons we might like or dislike it, but rather, the way in which it engages with the self-contained facts of the medium itself. Art, in other words, has truths that are not simply important for the real world, but which are distinct and self-contained from the real world. These truths are made manifest through art’s treatment of significant forms – shapes, colours, the relationship of these to the picture-plane – or at least, through the writings of critics who draw our attention to them.

And here the story of progress is both simpler and greater than that postulated by liberal art theory, because it tells us where all art will go, and hence, tells us how we should look back at all the art that has gone before. It turns out, in case you were wondering, that abstraction is the ultimate, satisfactory reply to the contradictions thrown up by the human need to make a two-dimensional record of three-dimensional experience. Imagination, style, contingency – these are abolished, to be replaced by development in a particular, inevitable, direction. And indeed, all art history can be read along these lines. Progress is an end in itself. An engagement with subject-matter, in the world beyond the picture – evident in figurative art, in the art of explicit social protest, even in the decision to substitute thematic arrangement of pictures for historic ones – is more or less the ultimate evil. A tone of high seriousness prevails. Relativism in the appreciation of fine art becomes not a metaphor, but a concomitant part of the Nietzschean ulcer eating away at Western Civilisation and its values, which are taken to be obvious, coherent and universally desirable.

Art, in other words, everywhere and at all times, becomes a matter of objective criteria, not subjective ones. It is, alas, in the application of these ‘objective criteria’ that the theory starts to look a bit fragile. Was Jackson Pollock as forward-looking as all that, and if so, what’s the point of the cod-surrealist titles? Do we learn much about Benin bronzes by seeing them purely in terms of volumetrics? Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis are all very well, but do we have to admire Jules Olitski? Obviously, such stances owe an enormous amount to accidents of individual predilection, feeding off psycho-sexual and geo-political imperatives of various sorts, and some of them age much more attractively than others. Greenberg himself – a brilliant critic – was perfectly willing to admit that this was the case. But once consigned to less subtle minds and less fluent voices, the urge to systematise, to discover and apply objective and unchanging rules of right and wrong – to do so, crucially, with a complete lack of humility, let alone self-knoweldge – has often proved irresistible, with results which have been, to outside observers, nothing short of grotesque.

The other strand of Marxist art criticism to be discussed here grew up in part as a critique of formalism, although it has distinguished roots in earlier writing – not least that, inter alia of Walter Benjamin. This way of thinking about art is more interested in its role as an aspect of material culture than in its aesthetic qualities per se, which are regarded as no more (and no less) than a cultural construction, there to be deconstructed again by alert and self-aware critics. Brighter readers may have already noted, with a blend of irritation and astonishment, that the Tory way of looking at art adumbrated above owes a great deal to such an approach. Where it diverges, however, lies in what Marxist critics generally go on to do with their insights once they have arrived at them. Obviously, there is an assumption amongst such critics that the material culture of a nation or class or era can be examined in order to discover holistic truths about the context in which it was created – an assumption discussed and dismissed above. More to the point, though, is the Marxist assumption that art in a society ought to function in certain ways, which tend not to coincide with a Tory vision of the world. For such Marxists, art ‘ought’ to be democratic, ‘ought’ to be accessible to everyone, ‘ought’ somehow to live up to all the things that various people at various times had wished it to do, and hence someone out there ‘ought’ to feel embarrassed or exposed when critics show that art is in fact produced for different reasons and turned towards different ends. There is, in other words, a campaigning tone that pervades much of this sort of writing which instantly distinguishes it from its Tory equivalent, both because Tories realise that (to paraphrase W. H. Auden) art makes nothing happen, because Tories do not ascribe the same effective force to conversations taking place amongst intellectuals that Marxists so often do, and because the Marxist vision of a secular paradise is, to a Tory mind, repellant and impracticable in equal measure.

At its Open University worst, this line of thought can be banal beyond description, but at its best, it can be both very beautiful and very revealing. T. J. Clark’s Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism combines clear-sightedness with nostalgia, humour and humility in a way that any Tory critic should only admire. Of course, Clark explicitly, if light-heartedly, invokes capitalism as his ‘Satan’; the past for which he is nostalgic is the one in which it was possible to assume with second-generation confidence a world of socialist ‘progress’; he is also persuasively confident that although modernism may seem to be over now, that is only because it has so comprehensively triumphed that it is no longer needed in its earlier forms.

One can disagree with quite a lot of this while still expressing profound gratitude that Clark has written about it in the tone and with the clarity that he has. Oddly enough, he seems to me to do a great deal – more, certainly, than any critic currently writing from a right-of-centre ideological stance – to show what Tory criticism might, some day, be like. Not least, he’s aware of all the different things that ‘art’ can do and be, its oddity and fragility as a category, and the complexity of its relationship with the world beyond its own boundaries. Farewell to an Idea starts as ‘episodes from a history of modernism’ but ends up as an honest account of the strangeness of our own times. It is also honest in its examination of its own biases and limitations as an account. Inevitability has no place here. Neither does complacency. Neither does defeatism. Surely, Tories could learn something from that?

Towards a Tory way of looking at art
All of which brings us round, strangely, to the point of this essay – that while there may well be such a thing as a Tory way of looking at art, there is no such thing as Tory art per se, and no reason why Tories need be constrained regarding the sort of art they individually like or dislike. It is possible to love the fruits of modernism for all the ‘wrong’ reasons – with all the respect for tradition, the recognition of the necessary arbitrariness of aesthetic crushes, and the dislike of theory – reasons identical to those which may lead other Tories dislike what they call, usually incorrectly, ‘modern art’.

Some readers may, perhaps, by now have begun to wonder why I have not felt the need to mount a defence of skill or beauty as qualities to be sought, found and admired in the greatest art. For although liberals and even Marxists sometimes take up this refrain, there is a sad ‘world we have lost’ quality about it, even when it claims to be saluting the art of the present day, that makes it sound familiar to Tories.

The good news, I suppose, is that I have nothing against either skill or beauty. Both are gratifying things to find in art. So, too, is the sense that an artist has somehow captured and translated into permanent form some intangible emotion that the viewer, too, has felt, almost as if some secret were shared between the two of you, almost as if there was something the two of you understood but which no one else did. My reluctance to make any of these qualities centrepieces of Tory criticism stems, however, from the fact that while none of these qualities is either uncomplicatedly objective or universal, it is far too easy to write about all of them as if they were both those things. Discussion of skill, for instance, often degenerates into swipes at something which we would not like even if creating it had taken all the skill humanly imaginable. Did it take more ‘skill’ to paint Jan van Eyck’s Man in a Turban or Tiziano Vecellio’s Madrid Self Portrait – or is that simply a coded way of asking whether someone likes gestural painting or invisible brush-strokes? There have been fake Vermeers that have passed muster for decades, but apparently no fake late Pollocks – so what does that say about ‘skill’? How can we speak with confidence about the skill required to create, say, a Yoruba mask, if we have no idea why it was made or what it was meant to achieve? How can we talk about the skill involved in making a Russian icon, when it was never meant to function as a work of ‘art’ in the first place?

Beauty is, if anything, an even more difficult concept. Of course it exists, and of course we are drawn to it, but saying that something is beautiful does not take us very far in critical terms, no matter how hard it is, in practice, to avoid exclamations of that sort. Tastes change. The history of the critical appreciation of, say, Rembrandt’s work or of Japanese graphic art or of abstraction makes that all too clear. There is, I suspect, more beauty in the world than any of us is capable of noticing, and it is one of the great joys of art when it alerts us to beauty that was previously disregarded or denied. Taste, though, plays a major part in blinding us to certain types of beauty even while opening out eyes to others, and while critics like to think that they can help to shape taste, this is not invariably the direction in which causation operates. Or to put it another way, asserting that something is beautful does not achieve much, while arguing that something is beautiful is an exercise from which few critics are capable of emerging with credit. And in either event, there is always a danger of doing no more than seeking to evoke seemingly objective criteria in order to ratify what are, at best, subjective responses.

A paradox, not a problem
At one level this entire essay has been an apology for, if not an explanation of an apparent paradox which may, perhaps, have already stuck some readers: the fact that while ERO is explicit in its High Tory inclinations, it has often had friendly things to say about modern and post-modern art, and will say more such things in the future.

Yet a truly Tory way of looking at art must, surely, smile indulgently upon such paradoxes. After all, ‘art’ is much younger than decoration, or dynastic advertisement, or ritual objects, or the pursuit of beauty – and indeed, as a category, it may be falling apart even now before our eyes. Nor is art very important. The production of unsatisfactory art has nothing to say about whether we are living in a more or less satisfactory world. There is nothing wrong with loving art that was produced amid rampant evil, although there’s no mystery about the fact that, in practice, it is often easier not to do so. Art can and does enrich and brighten individual lives, but it does not make people better or kinder or more decent, as the acquintance with the ‘art world’ proves beyond question. Art is, at best, the forgetful handmaiden of greater truths. Art should not be confused either with religion nor with any of the modern substitutes for religion. Nor should it be taken too seriously. Nor, however, should it be ignored by Tories, as if they could not forgive it for apparently siding with the modern world at some unspecified point in the past. To give up on art because it is somehow contaminated by modernity makes as little sense as giving up on the world because it is contaminated by modernity – which, of course, it is.

At another level, though, this essay is really a call for a Tory way of talking about art which is shaped by Tory habits of mind, rather than reaction to all the things that make Tories feel uncomfortable and out of step when confronting the whole category of art. Tory criticism should embrace the results of particularity, personality and historical accident. Tories should regard with gratitude, but not undue reverence, the writings of Peter Fuller
and Roger Scruton and David Watkin, and of non-Tories such E. H. Gombrich and Francis Haskell, but should be alert to the qualities and insights of less congenial writers, too. Tories should examine with interest and honesty the sources of their strong likes and dislikes. They should not blush if they find in a work some agreeable frisson of human sympathy, but should realise that this is a personal and subjective experience, not a universal and unavoidable one. They should admire beauty and skill but should not become arrogant regarding their ability to detect either of these qualities.

Tories should bring their insights to bear on the question of how art arrived at the point in which we find it today, and where it might be headed. Tories should show an educated awareness of conventional art-historical narratives, if only in order to discover hidden assumptions and agendas there. When confronted with art they find unappealing, they should show at least a cursory interest in what that art was created to do, why other people like it, and whether it could be said to succeed in its own terms. They should eschew self-congratulatory ignorance and the shrill but impotent rhetoric of the defeated. They should reject dogma, bad manners and high seriousness.

Most of all, they should relax. In doing so, they will give art the chance to surprise them – which is no bad thing, either. Surprise can, in its own way, provide just as much pleasure as familiarity. There is room for both. And perhaps, through surprising themselves – as much as their friends and their enemies – with their reactions to the art around them, Tories may find themselves re-taking a little of the territory they have, for whatever reason, conceded or simply lost.

Bunny Smedley, May 5, 2003 11:00 PM


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